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Ex Libris: New York Public Library


‘…it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling…’

We’ve just taken delivery of a new library in our community; even in the days of internet all areas, libraries, museums and art galleries have a fresh and developed role to play. In the era of fake news and the fake news outlets which cover them, happy to broadcast any old lies in the hope of tapping into a fresh income stream in terms of grabbing a slice of advertising money, the idea of information provided by a trustworthy authority is vital unless we accept our past being adjusted or even erased according to political expediency. This is nothing new in itself, but the disinformation highway currently feels like it’s never been more treacherous, and a refocus on the usefulness of the humble library feels in order.

Oscar-winning documentary maker Frederick Wiseman’s film, Ex Libris, is a three hour valentine to the New York Public Library system, examining in granular detail how the role of the library reflects the changing demands of the internet era. With only one in three New Yorkers having broadband at home circa 2017, Ex Libris depicts how the modern library is not only an access point, but a hub of communities, a centre of information and a bastion of truth.

Wiseman is one of the great figures of U.S. documentary history, and it’s notable that he’s chosen 2017 as his particular moment to reflect on the library system; we stood unknowlingly on the edge of the covid precipice that compromised our communications as the rich moved aggressively to control information networks for their own gain and our loss. Even without a voice-over, the 207 minute running time here doesn’t feel punishing at all; in fact, Ex Libris skips by, with brief appearances from luminaries like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and Richard Dawkins to light the way.

Ultimately, it’s Wiseman’s intent that makes Ex Libris so compelling; doubling down on the ordinary interactions that illuminate the lives of the ordinary New Yorkers seen here, Wiseman’s film is as important as his Titicut Follies and Hospital as meticulous portraits of how key American institutions function. Anyone who has settled down for an absorbing and illuminating tea-time lecture in the New York library system will get something from this thorough examination of the value of our social learning to date; if nothing else, it’s a pleasure just to reflect on the positive mindset of those who defend the role of books, culture and education in our lives.


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  1. I would love to have a library near enough to use frequently, I have to make do with buying books. Not sure I’d sit through 3 hrs about NYC’s one though. However I’ve never been to the Lit and Phil library ( ) in Newcastle which looks glorious so you’ve inspired me to put it on my photography outings list.

  2. On a serious note here.

    You seem to be decrying the editing of the past in terms of what is online. I read that correctly? So how do you justify editing your own movie reviews when you re-watch something instead of writing a new review? You’ve given your reasons before for that action, but it would seem to stand counter to everything you write here. How do I reconcile your words with your actions?

    As for libraries themselves. You need to show us more pix of your new library. Because your old one sure looked like some 24hr convenient mart with a bad selection of snacks…

    • That’s what all public libraries look like in Scotland.

      Come to think of it, that’s what all public libraries are in Scotland. They don’t even have plastic dinosaurs for the kids to play with. Just chips and pop.

    • Pics will be forthcoming, went last night, but it was closed.

      So, my opinion on a film might change, but the facts surrounding it stay largely the same; there might be an update due to new information. So there’s always editorial decisions to be made, just as a librarian has to choose which texts to include, or a museum curator decides what exhibits to display and what context to give. I created around 1000 stubs of short reviews, and will rework them into proper 500 worders if and when I can get round to it. My opinions may change, but reality doesn’t. What has happened with the internet is that the monetisation of news means that few sources can be trusted; different news outlets may offer different reality tunnels that suit advertisers rather than aim to share accurate truths. Libraries and museums are generally expected to avoid such modish thinking, and aim for something more permanent. To quote from the Banshees of Inishirin; ‘I’m not trying to be nice, I’m trying to be accurate’.

      • Libraries close in Scotland? You poor guy. here, they’re like party central. Open 24/7 with the disco ball dropping on the hour.

        I can accept that you see a difference in what you do, but I have to admit, I don’t. I’ll just leave it at that because I’m too busy arguing with Alex about Nixon’s head.

        • These do not sound like libraries that you are describing. Maybe that’s where the problem is.

          • A classic case of miscommunication because of faulty translations between languages. I knew this day would come some day. I thought I was fluent in the King’s English but I see I was mistaken. I hope this isn’t a precursor to nuclear war between our nations. can I offer you a poop burger as a token of peas?

            • No, you could visit your local library and find out what your missing. Don’t you have drag queen story hours?

                • I didn’t know you dressed in drag, Booky, even if it’s just for story hour. I have to say, you’re one of the last people I’d expect. The new things I find out about you guys every day just blow my mind.

                    • Well, you asked for it . . .

                      Booky canceled drag time story hour,
                      Leaving many feeling lost and dour.
                      Stories of queens and kings so great,
                      Now silenced, no longer their fate.

                      Little ones who loved the fun,
                      Now left with nothing to be done.
                      No more glitter, no more glam,
                      Just another canceled program.

                      But fear not, young ones, for we will fight,
                      To keep your stories shining bright.
                      We’ll take to the streets and shout it out loud,
                      Justice for all, and drag story hour proud.

                    • To be fair, I’m not sure the AI understands the words it’s using…

                    • Right. But I don’t find it scary. It’s just laughable.

                    • Then you need to watch the documentary, Rise of the Machines. That should give you something to be scared about 😉

                    • Yet to read anything from AI that didn’t ready like what it was; random words slung together. It’ll be the preserve of cheap businesses that can’t afford a writer, and will make it easy for the world to ignore. At least AI is a bogeyman we can all kick back against, rather than each other. But that poem waffles on about royalty because it doesn’t understand what a drag queen is…

                    • Early days, baby steps. It’s going to get better, stronger, faster. And while it might have mixed up the meaning of queen in the first stanza it surprised me by working pride into the last line, which was pretty sharp.

                    • If I’m meant to be impressed that it can write machine tooled doggerel, I’m not.

  3. I make full use of our library system. In general it gets used way more than the university library system. Which says something.

    Not sure this is much of a review though. No mention of the giant shark, or how Statham rates.

    broadcastany, according the political expediencey

  4. How have I missed this?

    I fell in love with libraries when I was a little kid and my mom took me to story hour at our local library. The fact that I could pick out my books, take them home and then bring them back for someone else to use amazed me. (It still does! If libraries didn’t already exist, politicians would never allocate tax money to help fund them!)

    Still spend a ton of time in libraries…when traveling, I always visit the local library if I have time.

    Also saw Patti Smith speak a few years back and she’s a gem. Wise and cool after all these years.

    This goes to the top of the list!

    • Like you, I love a library, and I also love NYC; it’s like a trip to the future. I always go to lectures and try and make the best use of NYC libraries, but everywhere I go, I want to make sure I know where the library is. The speakers featured here aren’t a complete collection, but there’s plenty of good ones like Smith.

      This doc is fairly recent, and should be easy to find, and it’s good for the soul in today’s intolerant world. Enjoy!

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